Norman Nelson Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013, at his home in Rockford.
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Nelson attended the National March on Washington with a group but got separated.
Alone, he was able to inch his way to the front, within 70 feet of the stage.
The 37-year-old was leading a predominantly black congregation in Chicago's Park Manor at the time. He had been following King in the press and had read King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." But he never had heard King speak.
"It was electrifying," Nelson said. "The first thing I thought was, 'Wow, I wish I could speak like that.' ... Some people said that's just how black preachers speak, but he was no ordinary preacher."
Nelson was born in 1926. He grew up a preacher's kid, the youngest of five siblings.
Nelson became a pastor, as did one of his brothers, who served for several years at First Lutheran in Rockford. Nelson was especially interested in inner-city churches. He served Saron Lutheran Church, a mostly white congregation in Logan Square on Chicago's northwest side, and Salem Lutheran Church, a mostly black congregation in Park Manor on the city's south side.
When Nelson's transfer from Saron to Salem was announced in 1961, he remembers a petition being circulated to "save him" from being sent to a black church.
They didn't know, he said, that he wanted to go.
Both he and his wife were from the south side. She had worked there as a librarian before the couple married.
Nelson knew the congregation had experienced dramatic change. The congregation had been entirely white in the 1940s, but by the late 1950s, 75 percent of parishioners were black.
Only one black Lutheran pastor worked in Illinois at the time, Nelson said. There were more in New York and more in the South, but most of them belonged to the Missouri Synod, formed by German Lutherans, Nelson explained, as opposed to what was then the Augustana Synod, which originated among Scandinavian Lutherans like Nelson and his father.
Source: Rockford Register Star | Corina Curry